For two months I have been on alert listening for the calls of the Sand hill cranes as they continue their migration south. Last year a good number of cranes spent the winter here in Abiquiu landing in the neighboring field to find food, and roosting down by the river in the riffles…

Seeing and hearing Sandhill Cranes has to be one of the the greatest joys of living near the river in Abiquiu.

This year’s trip to the Bosque del Apache is an experience every bird lover should have! For one whole day I was steeped in wonder and gratitude that such a place even existed. (I almost forgot that this refuge is also open to hunting. This “create a refuge and then shoot the animals” is normalized behavior for all state Fish and Game organizations).

To have so many cranes and snow geese along with harriers and other raptors, eagles, ducks, herons, sliders, fish, deer visible all at once while listening to crane and geese cacophony put me in state that I call “Natural Grace,” where nothing but the immediate present matters. At one point I met a couple who asked to take my picture. When I asked why they both said in union -“Why, you are so beautiful, you look like you belong here.” Evidently, the cranes had transformed me!

The day was perfect – absolutely no wind and temperatures that were so mild that I was able to sit on the ground watching cranes/snow geese through my binoculars until the sun finally set, and thousands of cranes and snow geese had taken to the sky. About 20,000 cranes were there when I visited. I also recorded the birds calling out to each other, and now whenever I listen to my tape I am transported back in time to that wondrous day. I am so grateful to have been there and plan a return trip this month.

We know from fossilized records that the Sandhill Cranes are one of oldest birds in the world, and have been in their present form for 10, 30, or 60 million years (depending on the source). They have apparently maintained a family and community structure that allows them to live together peacefully and migrate by the thousands twice a year. Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and in the spring the adults engage in a complex “dance” with one another. During mating, pairs throw their heads back and unleash a passionate duet—an extended litany of coordinated song. Cranes also dance, run, leap high in the air and otherwise cavort around—not only during mating, but all year long.

In their northern habitat, the female lays two eggs a year in thick protected areas at the edge of reed filled marshes. Before nesting these birds “paint” their gray feathers with dull brown reeds and mud to reduce the possibility of being seen by a predator. Born a couple of days a part, the second chick rarely survives. The fuzzy youngster that does stays with its parents for about three years before reaching sexual maturity and striking out on its own, but even then the adult stays within the parameters of its extended family, and it is these families that comprise the small groups of cranes that we see flying together. During migration, a multitude of these groups travel together. There are no leaders and often it is possible to observe what looks like an unorganized random group or diagonal thread made up of cranes flying above the ground. In every roosting place there are a few cranes that remain awake all night alerting their relatives to would be predators.

I am delighted to know that a few Sandhill Cranes have begun breeding in the fields around the Saco River in Fryeburg, Maine, not far from my home. Some research suggests that these birds have broken away from the eastern flyway. They were first sighted in Maine about 20 years ago. I am hoping this trend continues and that some may be making Maine their home for part of the year.

We do know that one of the consequences of Climate Change is that many migratory birds are shifting their routes or not traveling as far south as they once did. The cranes used to have three distinct flyways that flowed into one great artery the further south they traveled, and conversely fan out with some cranes flying as far as west as the eastern coast of Siberia during the northern spring migration. These days it is hard to predict what may be happening.

I think it’s significant that these very ancient birds have survived so long in their present form. Could it be that cranes understand the value of living in community in a way that has become foreign to humans who seem hell bent on embracing the values of competition, power, and control on a global level? Perhaps we could all benefit from watching Sand hill cranes with rapt attention.

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